July 18, 2010/October 4, 2010

“Their exotic nonchalance and their nearness”

As you can see, Spirit Sands were an endless source of inspiration for Linda’s keen photographic eye.

         Located in Spruce Wood Provincial Park south of Carberry, MB, Spirit Sands is actually the remains of a huge delta of sand and silt created by a glacial river that drained into Lake Agassiz for millennia. Sometimes called the Carberry Desert, today a few square kilometers of open sand remain, creating constantly shifting dunes, incredible vistas and a divine connection.

July 18, 2010 

            Typically, on the first day of a five-day trip into the mystical prairie, I hike the Spirit Sands. So begins this journey. With the first few syllables of my power song, I am welcomed once again at Spirit Sands in Sprucewoods Provincial Park. Another perfect hot summer day so I am stripped to my walking shorts, cap and hiking boots with my trusty walking stick, a gift from Linda, in hand.

            The number of times I hiked here alone and with Linda is close to one hundred. This is the piece of the prairie with which I am most familiar and which changes most rapidly due to the movement of the dunes.

            The hike begins in the mixed forest of spruce, aspen, old oaks and brush. The first significant and very healthy spruce I encounter is The Sentinel, distinctive against the blue sky as it splits into two trees halfway up. I acknowledge The Sentinel and proceed.  With the wet year, the ground is ablaze with blooms. The juniper berries, used to flavour gin, are already ripening on the creeping junipers that dot the park. The shiny silver wolf willow bushes and the ground-hugging bearberry with its glossy Christmas-green leaves flourish in the porous sand.

            Some of the early hills are quite steep which is when the “ten steps, stop and look back” rule kicks in. Knowing my limits is one of the important lessons Spirit Sands has taught me. Acting my age is another way to say it. Looking back on the trail is something few hikers think to do. Where I have just passed looks utterly different from the other side. There is always a new landscape behind me despite how eager I am for the one ahead.

            The trail splits after the first rest stop hut. The varnish on the wooden seats of the hut is gnawed and raw. Some critter probably gets high from chewing the varnish off the wood, porcupine maybe. I take the trail to the right that leads to the high wooden observation deck that offers a 10-mile view and, a little further down the trail, my sacred place. Eighty-three wooden steps take me from one level of the desert to the best view so far. 

            The view from the deck is spectacular. To the west glows blue Marsh Lake with its painted turtles and knotty-faced trees, an oxbow of the Assiniboine River which is wild and high this year with the rains. Past that, Hwy #5 and the rolling overgrown dunes in the river valley. To the north and south, broad green vistas of the valley beyond which gleam vile yellow canola and something an evil green. To the east, the glorious red sands of Spirit Sands. Once covering thousands of acres, the dunes are overgrown now, leaving a few square kilometers of open sand. This view beckons you toward the high dunes, luring you with their exotic nonchalance and their nearness. Around me the air thrills to the acrobatics of hundreds of dragonflies. The Dragonfly Days of Summer have come early this year. There is more of everything this wet year.

            Despite the sensual completeness of the view from the deck, it is overarched and humbled by a vast impossible blueness in which clouds slowly explode. The clouds throw down massive shadows that churn across the land, warming and cooling, switching insects on and off, caressing the velvet hills and fine red sand. From the deck, I watch the edges of the shadows arrive and depart for miles in both directions.

            Some water, a few cashews and almonds, warrior tai chi and gratitude to Spirit for bringing me here, for even allowing me here, and I am ready to move along. My gratitude is huge for I found my sacred place here, the one place that resonates just for me. It is in the transition zone between the forest and the sands, an area just below the observation deck, sparse in flora, mainly decaying rampikes and harsh mosses but rich in direction and purpose. Shamans appreciate and seek out these in-between places, places of change and opportunity, where the energy is always mixing and moving.

            After my first year of hiking here in the mid-1990s and Spirit Sands helping me with my shamanic development, I felt it becoming a sacred place for me, a growing part of my personal mythology.  To that end, I wanted to build a circle of stones in an off-trail place where I could do personal ritual and feel at home. On my next visit, it took me longer than it should have to realize, this is a desert. There are no stones in a desert. I had a backup plan.

            I journeyed on this topic several times after that, finally getting the idea I should let the Sands point out a place for my rituals. With that special intent in my mind the next time I visited, I walked the trail solemnly and openly. Past the observation deck, I began to sense something moving with me, muscle energy crossing my path. At a small rise in the trail, I looked left and saw two well-defined animal trails coming into a gully below the trail. They rose up, crossed the trail and converged between two tall spruce trees into another gully a hundred yards away. I followed the trail, looked into the gully between the trees and, a little right of the bottom, there was a circle on the ground! Not a circle of impossible stones but the most possible circle for the site.

Aerial view of Spirit Sands shows how large the open dunes once were and how overgrown it is today

           Eroded up through the sand and glowing from years of gathering moonlight was the circular root system of a long dead creeping juniper, which grows in round shapes in the park. Defined not by an outer edge but by the spokes of the roots, it felt like a perfect inside out circle for me. I asked the local spirits for permission to enter and was welcomed. At the heart of the circle, where the tree had once grown green toward the sun, a rush of energy poured forth toward me. I knelt among the brittle roots and wept in gratitude. I had come home.

            The gully where my place sits is about 50 feet deep, the sand somewhat overgrown with mosses, small tufts of grass and a few junipers. The rim is lined with old spruce, most past maturity in their final years until some wild northwesterly blows them down like their prone neighbours. Limp skinny aspens whisper along the south rim, spruce and blue sky fill up the rest. The animal trail diverges as it crosses the bottom of the gully, leaving two separate cuts in the sand that disappear over the rim. I stop here almost every time I visit the park.

            On this hot July day in 2010, I doff my cap, shirt, knapsack and stick as I descend into the gully. Pausing to sing my power song, I feel welcomed again and enter the circle from the west as usual. Next to the centre of the circle grows a little pincushion cactus, cautiously pushing its tiny, needle-whiskered greenness out of the sand. Because pincushions produce one or two blooms atop the cactus, a nut forms there and usually just falls off next to the plant, causing clusters of pincushions to form like at the one o’clock position in my sacred circle.

            Rattling to the four directions, I sing my power song, pray and dance with the wind. Spirit moves through me and I am entangled in the branches of a long-dead tree, laughing. At the heart of the circle, where the tree once grew, I leave an ovoid opalescent stone Linda gave me to cure for a few days in the sunshine and moonlight over the full moon. The plan is to pick it up in five days on my way home from this journey.

Long view of Spirit Sands transition zone between mixed forest and sand dunes. 

           Leaving my sacred place, I don my cap and smile. How peaceful I feel, how joyous, how mobile as if my personal evolution is speeding up, some invisible change is occurring. It isn’t unpleasant; it feels natural, even and easy. Since my place is off the trail, crossing the brittle land back to the trail means careful slow steps, dodging pincushions, which usually don’t survive being tramped on.

            Shortly I arrive at the long log ladder to the top of the first dune. The day is hotter and muggier. The Sands are usually 5 to 10 degrees hotter than the land below. I start to climb, ten steps, stop, look back. Beside me, the big bluestem grows in tumps up the dune face. This view of Spirit Sands still gives me shivers regardless of how often I see it. The Spirit Sands Effect is restorative, where an easy connection to Spirit occurs that allows me to pass both ways – Agape to Eros, Eros to Agape, The One into the Many, The Many into the One. Chris mentioned he felt this aspect of the desert strongly when we hiked here a month ago.

            I wend my way under a large copse of tall willows to the left of the ladder entrance. Sheltered out of the wind and sun, I do sacrament and rest, breathing the thick air of a muggy day. I am utterly at peace, at home.

            Above me is the bench of a large dune that opens onto the largest expanse of sand. I climb to it, take off my hiking boots and socks, fling open my arms to the sky and let the breeze blow through me. When I am ready, I do warrior tai chi at the edge of the bench. From a distance, I look like small mysterious punctuation, an unsettled hieroglyph against the sand.

           After hiking here several times, Linda and I discovered a lovely place that became our special spot together on the dunes. Shoeless, I skirt the bottom of the two dunes to the left of the ladder and climb the steep slope of the second last large dune right to the top. Next to a small outcrop of bush, we’d take off our shoes off, dig our toes into the sand and admire the incredible place around us. Situated right at the edge of the dune, it overlooks a spruce and aspen forest, mottled green and dappled with the silver of deadfall. To the right is open prairie, the twin tracks made by the covered wagons that deliver tourists around the Spirit Sands and Punchbowl are prominent. Behind us and away the red sands stretch. This is where Linda’s ashes will be dispersed later this summer along with the remains of our first cat, Teedy. Together they can blow forward and back across the dunes. Eventually my ashes will join them in the eternal dance. What a place to spend eternity!

October 4, 2010

Email to Chris:

            Two intense experiences on the Sands today: I was able to sustain my attention in the causal realm for many minutes, maybe seven or eight. Previously I have only had short peak experiences there. I came out of it feeling light and free having touched the scene of freedom and the source of creativity. Not long after that as I topped a rise, a bald eagle was soaring directly above my head. I looked up and began to spiral with the bird who conveyed a direct and clear message to me: you know everything you need to know about what happened this summer, go home, sit down and write it! It couldn’t have been any clearer. Both these events occurred as I was heading back to the parking lot after spending a couple of hours on the dunes. I did touch that limitlessness as you suggested. My Spirit is full and smiling. I’m living that same dream!

* * *

         What Eagle didn’t make clear was what format to use to write about my summer and the distance it went. I chose this familiar form, sharing it with friends and family, people who will understand and people who won’t. Eagle was right. I did know everything I needed to write this. Thank you for reading it. I appreciate and respect any comments you may have.

        One year ago today Linda transformed from this world into the next. This hardly seems possible, but as this series indicates, I have become accustomed to embracing new realities over the past two decades of my life. This year I faced a complete change of lifestyle, nothing is as it was or ever had been for me. My innate creativity has helped me conceive of and create a new reality, new lifestyle for myself. This would not have been successful, or even possible without the generous assistance of my family and friends. From gentle touches and taunt hugs, from truthful hugs and knowing smiles to just holding me, I have been loved and understood by so many. I thank you for your part in my healing. You made a difference.

   Merry Christmas!

          With love and respect,




All summer long

            Nearly every time after Linda and I hiked the Spirit Sands we drove north to Carberry and had chicken burgers and chocolate milkshakes at the Summer Shack. Our hill and gully hikes worked up two good appetites. Situated on Highway #5 (Check) the Summer Shack is a little fry pit that caters to locals in a paper plate and plastic utensil manner surrounded by over-shellacked, rustic, bolted-to-the-floor ambience.

           Carrying on the tradition (and as homage to the inventor of the chicken burger – the Earl of E coli), the small coterie of souls who spread Linda’s remains on the dunes this August had some form of chicken afterwards at the Summer Shack. (Ordering tip: ask for extra mayo and lettuce on your chicken burger, to fend off dryness. They are a little conservative about that out there in Carberry.) A huge air conditioner above our heads vibrated the whole building while effectively providing coolness.

               Of course, I would recommend the Summer Shack. It is three miles off the TCH and well worth the jaunt. Open only summers as the name implies, you order at a wicket and, miraculously, your food arrives. 


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